Last week I was in my favorite bookstore, Stacey’s, on Market Street in San Francisco, trying to buy a copy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Why I was looking for Tom Jones is a long story which I won’t go into. What I will mention is that, first of all, Stacey’s is an endangered species. It is one of the last independent bookstores in San Francisco. Since I began working here, I have seen half a dozen independent bookstores close, most recently Cody’s and Clean Well Lighted Place, within a few weeks of each other. When I go into a place like Stacey’s I almost feel endangered myself: there are fewer and fewer customers, and seemingly endless piles of shiny, alluring books that no one has time to read anymore. As an (erstwhile) writer in a place like that, I feel both the awed reverence that a worshipper can feel in a temple, and the vague unease that I am on a leaky ship without lifeboats. There is a sadness about the place, now.
Tired, I ridiculously looked for Tom Jones under Jones. This book has been such a part of my life I sometimes forget it was written by a Mr. Fielding, and would therefore be found under Fielding. Did I find it? There was Bridget Jones’s Diary (coincidence? relation?) also misfiled under Fielding. But nary a sign of Tom. I asked at the information desk (Stacey’s still has an information desk of very knowledgable, older, salespeople, who have heard of Tom Jones and have also heard of the wrong Tom Jones (the Welsh one with a sartorial problem). She shook her (gray) head and said that they had no copies in stock, and it would take two days, and after all this was disgraceful, they ought to have it she muttered, apologetically.
They did have AmÃ©lie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling which I also had to buy for reasons I won’t go into but heartily recommend for anyone contemplating working for a Japanese company (or any other huge corporation for that matter). So I took AmÃ©lie, considerably lighter than Tom would have been, and headed for the cash register.
I waited a long time; a man was going into something at length with the cashier but I was too far away to hear what he was saying, or understand what was taking so long. When my turn finally came I went up to the cashier, an elderly gentleman with big round glasses and a white beard and a sad Santa air about him. He apologized for the delay, then began shaking his head violently. “That man,” he said, “said he’s moving away from San Francisco because it has become a bedroom community for software developers.” I laughed; you could see it that way. But then the cashier went on, “What do you suppose he meant by that? Why is San Francisco a bedroom community?”
I was a little surprised, but also somewhat charmed that the concept had escaped him. “Well,” I ventured, “I suppose he means that people live in San Francisco and commute down to Silicon Valley for their jobs…”
“Why not just live down there?”
Logical, but…”Perhaps they like to be in the city, for the restaurants and shops and so on. I suppose it’s more interesting here than Redwood City or Mountain View.”
I pictured the old guy living in a quiet Victorian somewhere, with his meager pension, rounding out his month with his wage from Stacey’s; maybe he was one of the last of the true booklovers, who lived in the world of books as if that was all that mattered, unaware of the young people who swamp to the city for its so-called hip or international cachet, and who add profusely to global warming by commuting an hour each way every morning to their overpaid jobs at Google and Apple and Sun Microsystems and have never read anything remotely resembling a paperback apart from their iPhones and their Blackberries.
“Sure none of my neighbors do that,” he said, taking my money and handing me a receipt.
“Oh, my next door neighbor does, and I’m even further away. Every morning at 5.45 he heads off to Cisco down in San Jose. Over 60 miles each way. It’s crazy.”
(I didn’t even begin to go into the other things my neighbor does. He is a truly pathetic individual. He probably earns a fortune, and could employ half the population of Michoacan to do his yard work, but instead he spends his weekends waltzing his leaf blower around his lawn until every pathetic little leaf is gone and the lawn resembles a golf course. Or I suppose it does, I can’t see it because he has a fence to keep out the Huns all around it. Hours and hours of commuting and working for a huge corporation without even AmÃ©lie Nothomb for comic relief, then every weekend producing noise like jet reactors and fossil fuel polluting the bucolic neighborhood for no one’s benefit but his putting green lawn. You know this man has a serious problem.
You read it first, on this blog: I’m moving. I tried to ask him once to cut down on the leaf-blowing and was told to get out of his yard. I called the sheriff but those guys stick together.)
I left Stacey’s with a smile and a redolent sadness. I pictured the little old man in his Victorian with his old-fashioned neighbors, playing cards on Saturday nights. Or, if he was alone he’d be reading Proust, or Arthur C. Clarke. He didn’t know what software developers were, how they’ve fornicated California with their money and their SUVs and their leaf blowers. He was an innocent, a last holdout of a dying species.
Shops have closed all over. In downtown Mill Valley yesterday I counted no less than seven empty shops that were once thriving businesses: a kitchenware shop run by two gays. The legendary Village Music that sold vinyl LPs and catered to the Rolling Stones and the greats of jazz alike. The little tea and coffee outlet where I bought my coffee beans and my imported English Earl Grey and wine gums. The original, first, pre-corporate Banana Republic. A lovely gift shop. The equally legendary Sweetwater bar (which, rumor has it, may move into the gift shop). A trendy Italian kitchenware shop (that’s it, too many kitchen shops). And this is just in little Mill Valley–a rich bedroom community that ought to know better. At least the bookstore is still alive…
For me, these are all signs. Of course I’m not moving just because of a leaf blower. But the day the only people left in San Francisco are software developers and their ilk–geeks and googlers and leaf blowers–we can be fairly certain Stacey’s will be no more. I don’t want to be here when that happens.